Boris rolls the dice
Boris Johnson’s burqa article is not a gaffe, but a political gamble, argues Paul Demarty
Two great dangers await the commentator on the fringes of official politics.
In the one case, we impute to our adversaries superhuman competence - they see everything coming in advance, and apparent setbacks are no more than the chess player’s advantageous sacrifice of the occasional pawn. The other is the direct opposite. Our enemies are idiots, perpetually at war amongst themselves, committing the most egregious blunders, and ripe to be toppled, with just one last push, comrades …
Though both are salient, the latter danger is very much the greater, as we turn to Boris Johnson’s latest tilt at the headlines. There is certainly the opinion available that what has happened with Boris and his column on the niqab is an uncontrolled reflex of the public school racism that has gotten him into the liberal firing line before, and made his brief career at the foreign office so very … eventful.
In truth, Boris is a rather cannier operator than that. He is not a Donald Trump, firing off tweets faster than his beleaguered staff can explain them away. The niqab episode must be placed in the context of the Tory Party’s crisis, the global crisis of neoliberal political legitimacy, and - of course - the man’s irrepressible ambitions.
We should begin with a closer look at Johnson’s Sunday Telegraph article (August 5). It is written in the bluffly humorous manner which preponderates in his journalism, addressing the recent decision of the Danish parliament to ban the burqa and niqab in public places, following several other examples. He teases the Danes for their free-spiritedness - skinny-dipping in the North Sea, permitting large-scale squats in Copenhagen, putting two fingers up to the Maastricht treaty, and so on - and commends that “spirit of liberty” to them, declaring the ban wrongheaded.
It is acceptable to forbid, as Jack Straw famously did, women from wearing the niqab in constituency surgeries, and for teachers and the like. Putting away his Tacitus for a moment, Boris informs us that he was unable to find any scriptural justification for these garments in the Koran. But just random women in public? Surely it is no worse than Sofie Gråbøl’s sweaters in The killing …
What does it matter that such women are dressed up like letterboxes, or even bank robbers? Telling them not to will amount to much the same as telling your teenage daughter not to get such ostentatious piercings - it will only “stiffen resistance”. Far better to tolerate such forms of dress, so far as coercion is not involved, until they go away of their own accord.
On the face of it, this is hardly the stuff of Tommy Robinson. It is a sustained, well-ordered defence of freedom in religious dress (within certain limits … ). And so the whole thing looks, equally, like a cock-up - a few glib comments have alienated the very people he presumably meant to court.
Something just does not add up, however. Johnson is not some naive scribbler, but a journalist going back some two or three decades. He chooses his words, and must have expected somebody to take offence at some of his article. Indeed, we detect the signs of a defence laid out well in advance. You’re an Islamophobe! ‘Do I not oppose the burqa ban?’ You mock Islamic dress! ‘And silly piercings, and Danish knitwear - can’t you take a joke?’
This is the practice known among internet intersectionalists as ‘gaslighting’, after the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband plays subtle tricks on his wife’s mind in order to drive her mad. Eventually the victim will lash out, even if the immediate proximate cause seems hardly to deserve such drama. So it proved: a storm of criticism followed. Liberal media outlets excoriated him. He was shopped into the Tories’ disciplinary committee, where he will be investigated, on pain of suspension or - worse - diversity awareness training. The Muslim Council of Britain, the largest and most ‘official’ lobby group for British Muslims, accused Johnson of using “far-right memes” and claimed that a spate of attacks on ‘visibly Muslim’ women had followed his article.
We must assume that Johnson has gotten exactly the response he wanted, from imams and snowflakes alike. He has responded to the furore not with the enraged defensiveness of somebody surprised by a negative reaction, nor with the grovelling apologies we have come - alas! - to associate with the Labour front bench. Radio silence is carefully maintained. This, too, is clever; for there is no shortage of white knights waiting to ride to fair Boris’s rescue.
Some are relatively innocuous: Rowan Atkinson - who made a stirring attack on the Religious Hatred Bill in 2005, in defence of the comedian’s right to mock and pillory without legislative restraint - has popped up on largely the same lines now. Fair enough - except that Boris is not a comedian, nor even strictly a journalist, but a politician, for whom standards are surely different.
More significant - and typical - are the backbench Tory voices demanding that the investigation into Boris’s comments is abandoned forthwith and decrying, once more, the “liberal thought police”. Jacob Rees-Mogg, to nobody’s surprise, is leading the charge again. Firmly in that corner, also, is the gutter press - The Sun will die for the right to make puerile jibes at the funny clothes of any ethnic minority you like, while the Daily Mail printed a full two pages of readers’ letters in defence of the beleaguered toff.
This leaves Theresa May in something of a pickle - as usual. She cannot very well not censure Boris for his misdemeanour, with a host of grandees demanding his head and her own history of bringing the Tories on board with the modern official doctrines of diversity, equality of opportunity and so on. It would also be, on the face of it, ultra vires - it is not the leader’s job to conduct disciplinary hearings, or dispense with them. Yet, if Boris is expelled or suspended, there will be quite an uproar. There are clearly a good number of Tories prepared to die on that particular hill. If he is forced to go to diversity training, he has indicated he will refuse … which gets us to the same showdown by a different route. There is no guarantee that May will be able to stand in his way.
There are also, naturally, friends to be found further afield. Gareth Bennett, Ukip’s leader in the Welsh assembly, took the opportunity to pile in on the awfulness of seeing women in niqabs - “It feels like I’m in Saudi Arabia” - and looked forward to the end of “these apparitions, which seem to be of some kind of pre-medieval culture” (no mean feat for a religion not founded until the middle ages …). More ominously for a tetchy establishment overly in love with its bogeymen is the appearance - right on cue - of American alt-right blowhard Steve Bannon to voice his support and echo the comments of his erstwhile boss, Donald Trump, to the effect that Johnson would make a fine prime minister. As the far right of the early 20th century viewed the Jew - pulling the world’s strings for his own inscrutable purposes - so does the political class seem to view Bannon, country after country falling into his clammy palms.
The power thereby imputed to this charlatan is illusory, but the phenomenon thus ‘explained’ is certainly not. This is the second layer to Johnson’s little gambit. This most opportunistic of politicians is quite aware of the rise of the far right in many countries - international chauvinism, you might call it - and of his own role in the British episode of the drama. Though in reality a fairly run-of-the-mill, Thatcherite careerist, he is excluded from taking up with Tory moderates by the times - some people have populism thrust upon them. Playing the snowflake-baiting hard-Brexiteer is the best chance he has to destabilise May’s government and thereby - perhaps - replace her in number 10.
We are perhaps teetering on the brink of our other danger - of imputing diabolical genius to the honourable member for Uxbridge. Indeed, this was not guaranteed to work - it might have triggered no more censure than, say, the Rudyard Kipling incident, which blew over within days, in spite of potentially greater consequences. In the event, the silly season has catapulted Boris to the front pages, and reminded us all that Boris, unsackable from the cabinet he resigned from, is now probably unexpellable from the party he continues to represent in parliament.
Watching this whole thing has been a rather depressing business. There cannot have been so many political scandals that have been about as little as this one. A couple of snide, childish sentences in Johnson’s article are really something we on the left, at least, should have learned to keep in perspective (there is little enough of substance to actually disagree with in the piece - except the idea that MPs ought to be able to demand their constituents change their dress in order to talk to them, which smacks, as it did in Jack Straw’s day, of careerist entitlement). Even the MCB’s allegations of increased attacks - probably true - are not really caused by Johnson’s comments, but are a poisonous result of the imperialist war on terror and its grimmer consequences (mass war deaths, displacement of populations, ‘blowback’ attacks in the west, etc).
So if Johnson is ejected from the Tory benches by this disciplinary investigation, are we really to suppose that this will improve the position of Muslim women in this country one iota? All that is at issue is Johnson’s cheap career - and he should be denounced for exactly this emptiness, the shabby mind games in service only to the quest of adding one more buffoonish leader with absurd hair to the world stage.
The only further significance of it all is that it reinforces the picture of a world spiralling downwards; in the battle between right-on (neo-)liberals and the overtly national chauvinist right, there is no doubt who is winning, and the left is wholly disarmed by its effective unity with the former in these synthetic controversies. Nothing less is at risk than a fresh slide into barbarism. Averting that sort of catastrophe will mean something other than repeating, endlessly, the same mistakes.